Today is one of our special Dog Days of Podcasting episodes, and I’ll be answering a question from Melissa Bartell, one of the DDP participating podcasters. Her show is called Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Tub.
Melissa says that she used to be in a Bible study group at which several different Bible translations were used. She says that she bought a parallel Bible that included the KJV, the NASB, the NLT and the NIV, and that it’s fascinating to her how different translations of the Bible make different word choices.
So her question is this: I was wondering if you’d consider talking about the different versions, and more specifically, do you have a favorite?
Well, Melissa, thanks for writing in and thanks for the great question. Talking about the different Bible translations is actually one of my favorite things to do, but maybe that’s not surprising, given that I do this podcast and am in my third time through recording the complete Bible.
I have a deep love for the Word of God because of what it’s meant in my life and the lives of many of the people that I love and have loved who have now gone on to be with the Lord. And I love the fact that there is a Bible translation out there for just about any type of person.
No longer are you restricted to the very archaic, albeit beautiful language of the King James Version, with all the thees and thous and giveths and smotes and etc. There are Bible translations from a third grade reading level all the way up to the 12th grade reading level. There are formal language translations and very informal translations.
The important thing to remember with most all of the English translations of the Bible is this: even though the word choice differs, the message is the same. Generally speaking, one translation does not contradict another translation. I say “generally speaking” because there are a few English translations out there that were put together by what could be called non-standard groups. Groups that are not generally accepted by most Christian groups as accurately teaching the basic Christian tenets. I won’t be talking about those translations or those groups today. I’ll be limiting my discussion to those translations that are generally accepted by most of Christendom, though some denominations do prefer one or two translations over the others.
So, the Bible was originally written in Hebrew for the Old Testament and mostly Greek for the New Testament. In translating from the original languages to English, those doing the work have to make a lot of decisions. One of the first decisions is, “Do we do a word-for-word translation, or a thought-for-thought translation? Or something in between?”
Most of the translations we use today fall somewhere along a sort of spectrum between the two extremes.
Which type of translation to use depends somewhat on your needs. If you are doing a very scholarly study, really digging deep into the scriptures, a translation that is closer to word-for-word will probably be more useful than a thought for thought treatment. If your intent is to read Scripture for pleasure or to get a general overview, then a thought for thought version might be good for you.
Let me read you a couple of examples. I’ll read the first few verses of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. First I’ll read from the NASB, which is high on the word for word spectrum, and a 12th grade reading level:
3″Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4″Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
5″Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.
6″Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
7″Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
8″Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
9″Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Now I’ll read from the Message which is at the 4th or 5th grade level and very high on the thought for thought scale:
3“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
4“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
5“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
6“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
7“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.
8“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
9“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family
So you see, the overall message is the same, but the language is very different.
My personal favorite has changed over the years. When I was a new believer at the age of 16, the Good News Translation of the New Testament was only a few years old, and I liked it a lot. If you were to imagine the spectrum I talked about earlier as a number line with a perfect balance between word for word and thought for thought being at “0”, and a literal word for word translation being at “-10” with a very loose thought for thought translation at “+10” on the number line, the Good News New Testament would be at about a “+7”. The Message, which we just read, would be at about “+9 1/2”.
Once I started really becoming a student of the Bible, and began teaching Bible Studies to young people, I found that I wanted to get closer to the original language, so I started using the New International Version, which is very near “0” on the spectrum.
Years later, when I began teaching adult classes, I found that I needed even better translations, closer to word for word. I developed a love for the NASB, even though the language tends to be fairly formal and almost stilted in some places.
Today, I have dozens of Bibles in my collection, and sometimes I use them all if I am developing a study for one of the adult groups at my church. Back in the day, before the internet and the wonderful free Bible apps that are now available, a large Bible collection represented a big investment. I was blessed because when I was building my library, I was managing some very large Christian bookstores here in southern California, so I got some good discounts, and some of the sales reps even comped copies once in a while.
So when I’m studying, I’ll often read the same chapters or verses in multiple translations. This helps me to get a better idea of what was originally intended. And then I’ll use other books in my collection that actually take me to the original Hebrew or Greek words, and I’ll study what those original words mean. I don’t speak Hebrew or Greek, but there are some wonderful tools that give very good translations of individual Hebrew or Greek words, and from those, you can get some really good nuanced understandings of passages that don’t really come through in any one translation, no matter how good it is.
So, Melissa, you asked what my favorite translation is. My answer is, it depends. For casual reading, I tend to go with the NIV, or New International Version. But I also like the New Living Translation. If I’m going to be a participant in a Bible Study group, I’ll probably use the English Standard Version, which is around a (-8) on the scale. If I’m going to be teaching, I’ll probably start with the NASB, but then pull out all the stops and use everything at my disposal.
You mentioned that you like the KJV because of the beauty of the language. I agree with you. It is beautiful, but I rarely use it. it’s language is archaic, and our modern language differs significantly, making its use as a study bible very limited.
I want to wrap this up because I don’t want to go any longer, but I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the topic of various manuscripts. Over the years, different ancient copies of the Bible have been discovered and used as the source for the translations we have. The most commonly used manuscripts each have their supporters and their detractors. That is a whole ‘nother discussion, but I wanted to acknowledge their existence.
Melissa, I hope I’ve answered your question. I actually taught a class at my church on this subject, and I barely scratched the surface in a one hour class, so this discussion was really a 35,000 foot view. I hope it was helpful.